Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000412, Wed, 21 Dec 1994 09:27:00 -0800

Synaesthesia (fwd)
From: Jan KLIMKOWSKI <Jan.Klimkowski@bbc.co.uk>

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jan Klimkowski, author of the following remarks, was the
researcher for the recent BBC Horizon program on synaesthesia. As
NABOKV-L subscribers know, Nabokov was discussed as one of the "case
histories," and Dmitri Nabokov, also a synaesthete, was interviewed as
part of the program. My thanks to Jan Klimkowski for generously providing
us with past and present information about the program and its background.

First off, as the researcher on the BBC Horizon synaesthesia documentary,
"Orange Sherbet Kisses", I'd like to thank Jerry Goodenough for the
excellent note he posted to this forum about our programme and for his kind

As soon as I learn of any planned transmissions of the programme in
countries other than the UK, I will gladly provide details for this group.
Similarly, once the transcript becomes available from the BBC's
WorldWideWeb site I will post directions to the forum. Dmitri was in
splendid form throughout.

This is of course the Vladimir Nabokov forum, and not a synaesthesia forum,
but I suspect there are aspects of the synaesthetic experience which may be
of interest to this community and I'll briefly touch on a couple below.

Whilst synaesthesia can theoretically involve "crossover" between any pair
or combination of senses, chromesthesia or coloured hearing is by far the
most commonly reported/identified form. In "Speak, Memory", VN
interestingly suggests that "perhaps 'hearing' is not quite accurate, since
the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally
forming a given letter while I imagine its outline". This is important
testimony. But it should be stressed that coloured hearing itself seems to
have a number of different manifestations.

For instance, tests performed by the London scientists (led by Simon
Baron-Cohen) have found that for many coloured hearing synaesthetes the
colour of a word is determined by the colour of its first letter. Indeed,
the tests have demonstrated that it is the letter and NOT the sound of the
letter that seems to be determining colour for many synaesthetes (thus
PHOTOGRAPH and FISH would be different colours, whilst PHOTOGRAPH and PIG
would be the same colour). The notion that for some "sound to sight"
synaesthetes, the phenomenon is linked to text, to the letters of the
alphabet, rather than sound is very counter-intuitive. And so the London
scientists are currently attempting to test pre-literate children of
synaesthetes (ie at ages 2-3 years) to discover whether any synaesthesia
they manifest is phonemic, as this would suggest that the identification of
colour with letters is either a developmentally later process or some form
of transferance activity.

Against this however, there are some "sound to sight" synaesthetes for whom
the colour of the first letter is not crucial. Each word - including even
nonsense words - will have its own particular colour and combination of

What is true for all synaesthetes is the consistency and durability of their
responses: their responses are personal but unchanging over time. Our
programme features brief clips of a family from Milwaukee where four out of
five siblings (3 girls, 1 boy) have coloured hearing. The family are all
above average intelligence and have had coloured hearing for as long as they
can remember - indeed, when they were younger they used to have long
arguments over breakfast about the colour of Monday and other synaesthetic
delights. But two are graphemic synaesthetes (where the colour of the first
letter determines the colour of the word) and the youngest two seem to be
something else (letters have colours but these colours do not determine the
ultimate colour of a word). So here, even within the same generation of a
family, different forms of "sound to sight" synaesthesia are evident. (In
passing, the eldest two are both at medical school and routinely use their
letter/number-colour correspondences to help them perform memory tasks.)

One can readily hypothesize (particularly if one is a telly researcher) that
the ability to interpret auditory stimuli in visual terms might confer
evolutionary advantage but the appearance of different forms of coloured
hearing in a single generation of a family is - to say the least -


We were also privileged in the course of making this film to meet a lady
called Julie Roxborough who is a polymodal synaesthete - with crossover
between all five of her senses. Julie's mother and grandmother were also
synaesthetic, her brother is a polymodal synaesthete, her son is
synaesthetic and her daughter seems to experience no synaesthesia
whatsoever. The only other polymodal synaesthete I am aware of is
Shereshevski, the S of Luria's "Mind of Mnemonist".

Julie told me a fascinating story - unfortunately not included in our
programme - about listening to the wireless as a young girl. She was
standing in her kitchen and was probably about three years old. Pointing at
the wireless, she asked her mother what it was, and what was going on? Her
mother replied: "it's the wireless... there's an orchestra playing music".
But whilst Julie could hear sounds, what was most striking for her were the
colours streaming out of the box, and her three-year-old response was: "But
I see colours!"

Julie eventually became a music teacher, and her love of music (and
disagreement with Messiaen's colour-note correspondences) are hopefully
evident in our film. But even now, when she listens to music at the end of
a long day, she finds herself attending to the colours rather than the
sounds. This, and countless other stories related by synaesthetes, have
brought home to me yet again the attentional nature of all perception.